St. Columkille (3)

Patrick Weston Joyce

During his whole life Columkille retained his affection for his native land and for everything connected with it. One breezy day, when he was now in his old age in Iona, a crane appeared flying from the west towards the island: it was beaten about by the wind, and with much difficulty it reached the beach, where it fell down quite spent with hunger and fatigue. And the good old man said to one of his monks:—

"That crane has come from our dear fatherland, and I earnestly commend it to thee: nurse and cherish it tenderly till it is strong enough to return again to its sweet home in Scotia."

Accordingly the monk took the bird up in his arms and brought it to the hospice and fed and tended it for three days till it had quite recovered. The third day was calm, and the bird rose from the earth till it had come to a great height, when resting for a moment to look forward, it stretched out its neck and directed its course towards Ireland.

On the day before the saint's death he went to a little hill hard by the monastery that overlooked the whole place; and gazing lovingly round him for the last time, he lifted up his hands and blessed the monastery. And as he was returning with his attendant he grew tired and sat down half way to rest; for he was now very weak. While he was sitting here an old white horse that was employed for many years to carry the pails between the milking place and the monastery, first looked at him intently, and then coming up slowly step by step, he laid his head gently on the saint's bosom. And he began to moan pitifully, and big tears rolled from his eyes and fell into the saint's lap: which, when the attendant saw, he came up to drive him away. But the old man said:—"Let him alone: he loves me. May be God has given him some dim knowledge that his master is going from him and from you all: so let him alone." At last, standing up, he blessed the poor old animal and returned to the monastery.

The death call came to him when he was seventy-six years of age. Though his death was not a sudden one, he had no sickness before it: he simply sank, wearied out with his life-long labours. Although he knew his end was near, he kept writing one of the Psalms till he could write no longer; while his companion Baithen sat beside him. At last, laying down the pen, he said, "Let Baithen write the rest."

On the night of that same day, at the toll of the midnight bell for prayer, he rose, feeble as he was, from his bed, which was nothing but a bare flagstone, and went to the church hard by, followed immediately after by his attendant Dermot. He arrived there before the others had time to bring in the lights; and Dermot, losing sight of him in the darkness, called out several times "Where are you, father?" Receiving no reply, he felt his way, till he found his master before the altar kneeling and leaning forward on the steps: and raising him up a little, supported his head on his breast. The monks now came up with the lights; and seeing their beloved old master dying, they began to weep. He looked at them with his face lighted up with joy, and tried to utter a blessing; but being unable to speak, he raised his hand a little to bless them, and in the very act of doing so he died in Dermot's arms."[7]


[7] This simple and beautiful narrative of the last days of St. Columkille, including the two pleasing little stories about the crane and the old white horse; with the affecting account of the saint's death, is taken altogether from Adamnan's Life. The circumstances of Columkille's death are in some respects very like those attending the death of the Venerable Bede, as recorded in the tender and loving letter of his pupil, the monk Cuthbert. But Adamnan's narrative was written more than forty years before that of Cuthbert.

Baithen was Columkille's first cousin and his most beloved disciple, and succeeded him as abbot of Iona.